Knowing how to say no gracefully and positively is an essential work (and life) skill.

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It’s human nature to want to say yes. Especially at work. We enjoy being a part of things, and we want to be seen as team players.

At the same time, saying yes can get away from you. You can start to feel you’re being called on to accommodate everyone’s needs. This is especially true for women, who are often told that refusing requests makes them seem less likable. The problem is that too much agreeability leads to stress, overload and burnout.

Fortunately, saying no is a learnable skill.

First, take time to consider requests. In other words, don’t give your answer right away. Think it over and seriously ask yourself whether this is something you want to, must or should do. This strategy lets your requestor know that you gave the matter a fair shot.

Let’s say that you do decide to decline a request. You may feel you have to provide a reason. But you know what? You don’t. In fact, it’s better not to because people might try to argue with said reason. You’re far better off saying, for example, “Thank you but no. I appreciate the opportunity to be included and I’m flattered you asked, but I’m just not available.” If you’re pressed, just reword your statement, keeping to the general meaning of “thanks, but I can’t.”

An excellent way to say no is to say yes to something else. For example: “No, I’m sorry I can’t be on the team-building committee, but I can provide the meeting venue.” Or “You know, I’m not really the best person for Job A. But I could do Job B.” This way you’re contributing to the common good while still protecting your schedule and maintaining your boundaries. Make sure that what you offer is both of value to your requestor and within your means to provide.

A final thought: Unless you have very solid reasons, never say no and then later say yes. You don’t want people to get the idea that you can be swayed. They may not take no for an answer next time.

While we often clearly don’t have the choice of saying no at work, we may have more latitude than we think we do. So it’s good to know how.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at